x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Obama gets a new mandate on foreign policy

The Middle East has much at stake in how the Obama administration governs with its new mandate.

There were not as many tears of joy this time around, nor spontaneous videos riffing on a pledge to return "hope" to a troubled nation. This time, Barack Obama's triumph at the ballot box seem to be fuelled less by a desire for "change" than voters' belief that his challenger, Governor Mitt Romney, could not do any better under difficult circumstances.

Domestic concerns dominated the US campaign season, and they will dominate the aftermath. Pessimism was already mounting, mere hours after Mr Obama's re-election, about whether he would be able to renegotiate the federal budget before the end-of-the-year deadline.

And yet, times of uncertainty at home have always provided opportunities for US presidents to reshape America's role abroad. Ronald Reagan used his second term to forge closer ties with the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton, dogged by a sex scandal, led the Nato charge to unseat Slobodan Milosevic. Even George W Bush, burnt by go-it-alone policies after September 11, became more responsive to multilateral negotiations at the United Nations, especially on Iran and North Korea.

In this regard, the Middle East has much at stake in how the Obama administration governs with its new mandate.

Mr Obama finds himself in the enviable position of being free to set policy without worrying about the next election. But the window of opportunity between being an effective president and a lame-duck leader is short. Mr Obama must act quickly if he is to change course.

On Syria, the US president had been loathe to push for aggressive action ahead of the election, fearful it would alienate war-weary US voters. With the election behind him, this calculus might change. It would be hoped, also, that Mr Obama might find the will to recognise the justice of the Palestinian cause, in the face of Israel's daily human rights abuses.

In all likelihood, Middle East peace - which Mr Obama has recognised as the fundamental source of conflict in the region - will take a back seat to American realpolitik considerations. The first relates to Iran. As Tehran continues to defy international sanctions and enrich uranium at a pace that suggests military ambitions, Israel lobbies its American patrons. Mr Obama will be under renewed pressure to threaten military action, although in theory he will also be free to pursue a more nuanced approach involving diplomacy.

The second area is in Afghanistan. Mr Obama has pledged to stick to the 2014 troop drawdown schedule - how the United States leaves after its longest war will define Central Asia for the coming decade.

Mr Obama's first-term record abroad might be characterised as careful inoffensiveness. Given the two terms - and two wars - of his predecessor, simply not doing more harm was a welcome departure. Still, the Obama administration's first four years produced more than its share of disappointments - Guantanamo Bay is still open, drone strikes multiply, and Mr Obama's promises delivered in Cairo in 2009 are unfulfilled.

Egypt and the region have changed greatly since that seminal speech. The United States has a deeply important role in the region, as an ally, a trade partner and a friend. But the lesson of the past decade is that sometimes America is a better friend when it stays silent, rather than tries to force its will. This is a reality that Mr Obama seems to grasp.

In March, the US president was caught in a revealing open-mic moment, when he told Russia's then-president Dmitry Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" after the election. That will be true not just in relation to Russia, but to the rest of the world as well. We will see what Mr Obama chooses to do with that power.